Australia was probably the last of the continents,
excluding Antarctica, to be inhabited by man and certainly the last to
be discovered by Europeans. Ancestors of the dark-skinned Australoid race
arrived between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago. Having neither crops nor domestic
animals except for the dingo, a hunting dog, these aboriginal people were
subsisting entirely on food gathering when the first European settlers
landed in 1788.
Australia is one of the most highly urbanized nations in the world. Sydney and Melbourne, with about 3 million people each, are much larger than any city in Great Britain except London. The population is very homogeneous, and many Australians think, with considerable justification, that class distinctions are much less marked than in Britain. Certainly social mobility is greater, as are social pressures toward conformity. The standard of living in Australia is not quite as high as that in the United States, but income is more evenly distributed.
For 200 years visitors from abroad have agreed generally about certain characteristics of Australian life. By comparison with other English-speaking societies, they found in Australia a greater emphasis on egalitarianism, on the collectivist rather than individualist aspects of the democratic ideal. They have also observed in Australia an easygoing style of life; a relative lack of earnestness, competitiveness, and efficiency; and a corresponding tendency to value leisure above success. These social attitudes are still discernible but are becoming less so. Since the two world wars Australian society has been changing more rapidly than at any other time in its past. This process has been accelerated by the arrival of large numbers of non-British immigrants.
In 1985 about 26 percent of all Australians who professed a religion were Roman Catholics, about 24 percent were members of the Anglican Church of Australia, and most of the rest were Presbyterian, Methodist, or other Protestants. Church attendance is less frequent than in North America. Generally, adherents of a particular denomination are not clustered in any one region of the country, although the more recent arrivals -- Greek Orthodox and Muslims -- tend to live in or near the largest cities.
Rotary, Apex, and Lions clubs flourish less on the whole than in North America, but more so than in Great Britain. The strongest and most influential of all such voluntary groups is the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL). It does much to safeguard ex-servicemen's rights and, with a charitable society called Legacy, to care for their dependents. It also sponsors social clubs. There is an "ex-services" club licensed to serve liquor in practically every town in the country. The RSL, though nonpolitical according to its constitution, exercises in practice a conservative influence on governments.
The labor movement, in contrast to the RSL,
exerts a liberal influence on governments. Australian trade unions had
become very strong by the 1890's, and in 1891 labor officially founded
a political party. In 1910 the Australian Labor Party won its first majority
in the House of Representatives. During the period of labor's political
ascendancy social welfare legislation in Australia was the most advanced
in the world. Australia has since fallen behind Sweden and a few other
affluent societies in this respect. Although the Labor Party did not hold
power on the federal level between 1949 and 1972, the labor movement nevertheless
continued to exert a strong influence on politics and society in Australia.
In 1991, 56 percent of the employed people belonged to trade unions -- more than four times the percentage in the United States. The Australian Teachers' Federation, the Amalgamated Metal Workers' Union, and the Australian Workers' Union are the largest. Trade unions still exert much influence on Australian Labor Party policies, but their control over members of parliament and the extraparliamentary party "machine" seems to be diminishing.
Business, farm, and professional associations, like the labor movement and the government itself, are usually organized nationally. Chambers of commerce and chambers of manufacturers in each state capital usually support local rather than national interests where these clash, but maintain national committees for lobbying on the federal government level. Historically in Australia the interests of graziers and farmers have been opposed to each other. Those who pastured sheep and cattle were often rich men with much property. Those who grew wheat or other crops were often poor and eked out a living from a few acres. To some extent these traditional differences are still reflected in the policies of pastoralist and farmer associations, though both groups tend to support the Country Party. As in so many other countries, the physicians' professional society -- the Australian Medical Association -- is probably the strongest and most effective of all trade unions or professional bodies.
Female suffrage was introduced in the colony of South Australia in 1894 and in commonwealth elections in 1902, long before women won the vote in Great Britain or in most other countries. Yet many observers believe that social mores in Australia cause women to be less prominent in business and the professions than are women in other advanced countries. Since 1972 men and women have received equal pay for the same work. Two women were elected state premiers in 1990.
Government old-age and invalid pensions have
long been taken for granted, though in terms of purchasing power today's
pension rates are no more generous than those of a generation ago. A national
health insurance scheme inaugurated in 1984 provides free hospital service
and reimburses patients for 85 percent of doctors' bills. Private medical
insurance is also available.